This week is Niue Language Week 2014. In this post, guest blogger Salote Talagi writes about kahoa hihi – beautiful shell necklaces from Niue.
Materials and manufacture
The kahoa hihi is a neck garland (kahoa) made from strings of tiny, distinctively yellow snail (hihi) shells. It is an iconic item of material culture from Niue. The particular type of snail used for a kahoa hihi is known as the ‘hihi vao’ or ‘te teloku’, an inedible type of snail found mainly found along coastal bush areas (1). The hihi vao crawls from under rock crevices and stones after light and short periods of rainfall. Once collected into a suitable receptacle, they are soaked in salt water to kill the animal inside and to retain the colour of the shell. The salt water is replaced as often as possible due to strong odours from the snail animal, and the shells are then tossed and turned while air dried in the shade until the odour disappears. In present times, adjustments have been made to make the production process easier, such as using ground water with a couple of drops of bleach as opposed to sea water to shorten the time taken for the odour to disappear. Once the hihi shells are ready for use, they are poked with a fine sharp implement to make a hole or holes, and a fine nylon string is then used to string the shells into a necklace (2).
According to Niuean oral history, the tupuna or elders of the small island nation of Niue believed that all arts and crafts originated from our own people. In another theory, six Gods lived a layer away from heaven; Fakapoloto was described as the God of making cowry shells and necklaces. (3). Legend then had it that Fao and Huanaki, two of the first ancestors who settled in Niue carrying chiefly ranks, lifted these shells from the seabed and stranded them on the western coastal area of Niue (4). As this historical account and legend illustrates, and as described by a respected tupuna, Fakahula Mitimeti Funaki, “The kahoa hihi or kahoa te teloku is a taoga or cultural treasure of Niue”.
Historically, much of the research on the material culture of Niue has been centred on textiles such as the hiapo or tapa cloth, and tiputa or poncho (5). Discussion of kahoa hihi has not figured significantly in published literature. The accounts of early European explorers in the Pacific, as well as of representatives from New Zealand living in Niue post-annexation, feature only minimal reference to the kahoa hihi. For example, in Stephenson Percy Smith’s detailed accounts of the history and traditions practiced in Niue during his time on the island as a New Zealand government representative, kahoa hihi are briefly mentioned in a section on “Shellfish,” where Smith writes “There are several species of land shells, of which the natives make great use for adornment, as in necklaces,” (6) and again in another section on “Houses, Utensils, Tools, &c.”: “The people make large numbers of shell necklaces (kafua) of the little yellow and dark landshells, which are very pretty” (7). While Smith himself doesn’t dwell on the significance of kahoa hihi, it is clear from his writing that they were widely favoured by the Niueans he encountered.
Current usages, value and meaning
In my own tupuna’s accounts of the kahoa hihi, it was once simply an item of household decoration, as well as an adornment that was part of dance costumes(8). In the modern, contemporary context however, the kahoa hihi has political significance in the sense that it is often presented as a gift and treasure of Niue Island by government officials to visiting leaders, guests and dignitaries upon arrival to or departure from Niue. The ability of the kahoa hihi to represent Niue in this way has also given it additional meaning and value for the large diasporic population of Niueans growing up off-island in New Zealand, for whom the kahoa hihi functions as what anthropologist Jocelyn Linnekin would term “identity merchandise”—a consumer good that evocatively represents Niuean-ness for its wearers (9). As Linnekin asserts, “culture and tradition ‘sell’ in the contemporary Pacific”(10). With their uniqueness and endemic nature to Niue—coincidentally attaining the same bright and vibrant yellow colour of the island’s flag—kahoa hihi have become an identity symbol and a way for Niuean individuals to assert ethnic pride. Whether in Niue, New Zealand or other diaspora communities overseas, many Niueans you see performing will be wearing one to several necklaces. From the performers on the Niue stage at Auckland’s annual Polyfest to Niuean leaders at regional forums and gatherings, this cultural artefact symbolises and promotes the identity of a Niuean. As with other examples of Pacific material culture in the era of globalisation, the kahoa hihi has taken on a transnational character in the way it caters for the mobilization of ethnic identities both in and beyond Niue (11).
The kahoa hihi has become a valued item in retaining the cultural consciousness of Niueans abroad and a way of reinforcing ties between migrants with their families, friends and roots in Niue. Recognising the value of kahoa hihi as an identity symbol and cultural artefact fosters respect and creates conditions for mutual understanding across our diversity of cultures in the Pacific region. The kahoa hihi is and will continue to be an item special and unique to Niue and its people; small yet vibrant in colour, it is something they can take and hold close wherever they go.
Salote Talagi is a student at Victoria University of Wellington majoring in Political Science, International Relations and Development Studies – focusing on the Pacific and Asia Regions.
The Pacific Cultures team at Te Papa thanks Salote and Dr April Henderson (Pacific Studies VUW) for helping us celebrate Niue Language Week 2014..
3.Taoga Niue, 2014
5.Akeli & Pasene, 2011
6.Smith 1903a, p. 104
7.Smith, 1903b, p. 216
10.Linnekin, 2004, p. 324
Akeli, S., & Pasene, S. (2011). Exploring ‘the Rock’: Material culture from Niue Island in Te Papa’s Pacific Cultures collection. Wellington: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa .
Funaki, F. M. (2013, October). Ko e Kahoa Hihi . (G. S. Talagi, Interviewer)
Linnekin, J. (2004). Tradition Sells: Identity Merchandise in the Island Pacific. Globalization and Culture Change in the Pacific Islands .
Smith, S. P. (1903a). “Niue Island and its People, Part I,” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol XI, No 2: 80–106: available at http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document/Volume_11_1902/Volume_11%2C_No._2/Niue_Island_and_its_people%2C_by_S._Percy_Smith%2C_p_80-106/p1?action=null
Smith, S. P. (1903b). “Niue Island and Its People, Part III .” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol XI, No 4: 195–218: available at “http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document//Volume_11_1902/Volume_11,_No._4/Niue_Island_and_its_people,_by_S._Percy_Smith,_p_195-218/p1
Talagi, G. S. (2013, October). Kahoa Hihi. (S. Talagi, Interviewer)
Taoga NIue. (2014, October). Origin of Arts and Crafts – Theories and Research. From Taoga Niue : http://www.taoganiue.nu/?page_id=121